For Hugh Taft-Morales (above), the closest he came to a religious experience was “Star Trek.”
Taft-Morales, the leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, grew up in an intellectual home with his father a scientist. He attended an Episcopal church for four years.
“I was sent there to get musical training, to develop my ear for music” he said.
After 25 years of teaching in Washington, D.C., Taft-Morales came across ethical culture and decided it was something he wanted to get involved in. Ethical culture in the United States was founded by Felix Adler in New York in 1877. It then spread to Chicago in 1882 and then Philadelphia in 1885. It’s been in the city ever since.
The society takes a non-theist approach to religion, meaning it doesn’t take a position on God, and uses science as the guiding principles, according to Taft-Morales.
“Our whole approach,” he said, “is to offer to people who see a benefit in coming to a place for inspiration, congregation, (and) help people live more ethical lives closer to their values.”
While the membership is small, the society is diverse from theists to non-theists, Taft-Morales said.
In 2010, Taft-Morales took over as leader of the society after Richard Kiniry retired. Kiniry, now the society’s leader emeritus, served as leader from 1990 until his retirement.
Kiniry, who still presents a platform once or twice a year, grew up in the Catholic church and was even in the seminary. He left the church in 1968 when he was 25.
Though the Catholic church educates its clergy well, Kiniry said, its message didn’t resonate with him anymore. He took issue with its views that people are born with original sin.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Kiniry, now 68, said. “It doesn’t literally make any sense. … What is religion to tell you that you’re born in sin and that you need to be saved.”
Seeking an alternative to the Catholic church, Kiniry found a place where he was comfortable when he ended up at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia on a Sunday morning.
It took him a while to join, but once he did he decided to go into the society’s seminary. Twenty-two years later, the retired Kiniry is trying to keep a distance and let Taft-Morales put his own stamp on the society.
“You don’t want to start butting in (Taft-Morales’) space,” Kiniry said of his current involvement with the society.
Jeffrey Dubb, a former board member, is no longer among the official leadership but he does serve on some committees at the society and attends the Sunday platforms.
About 15 years ago, Dubb came across the society while attending a concert at its building, which is located at 1906 South Rittenhouse Square. The society rents out its building.
“They had literature about the society on the front table,” he said. “I thought it was interesting. I came back the next day for a platform and it really appealed to me.”
Dubb grew up Jewish and was bar mitzvahed. He attended an Episcopal school, where he learned about Christianity. With his wife being Buddhist, Dubb has been exposed to many religions.
“Each one of them had some kind of problem for me,” Dubb said. “And ethical culture didn’t really. Ethical culture was a straightforward religion. Not a lot of bells and whistles to it.”
There are three things about the society Dubb likes: It gives him something to do Sunday mornings, allows him to be social and let’s him think about ethical values.
“If you didn’t have something like this,” he said, “you might never think about it because you just wouldn’t be exposed. This is a way to constantly remind you of those kind of things.”
As time went by, Dubb said he began to understand more about ethical culture. The society, according to Dubb, values the worth of the individual and believes in social justice.
“It’s very important to realize that every individual is unique and should be valued,” Dubb said. “We can’t have a society where you’re throwing away people.”
To accomplish this goal, the society attempts to keep the question of God out of the debate, Taft-Morales said.
“As soon as you start to debate theistic issues,” he said, “you get sucked into that and you’re not out trying to make the world a better place.”
Outside of its Sunday platforms, the society also holds public education classes, book discussions and action groups.
Because of the organization’s size—about 80 members, according to Taft-Morales—a lot of its work is in collaboration with other groups.
For example, the society has teamed up with Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) working on getting a $15 minimum wage, among other issues.
Ethical culture is a form of religious humanism, according to the American Humanist Association. While humanists use evidence as its backbone, it doesn’t answer everything.
“Science doesn’t explain everything,” he said. “I don’t think it explains ethics. … If there’s anything that we are, I hope it’s that we’re open-minded.”
-Text and images by Tom Dougherty and Moira Wilson.